Speak up for IDF's missing Druze
Watching the build-up to Gilad Shalit's release, I am not ashamed to say that I found it difficult to hold back the tears. Millions of people around the world celebrated his return. As I watched, I was taken back to a few years earlier, when I met the families of other Israeli soldiers who had also been kidnapped by enemy forces.
On October 7 2000, while patrolling the Lebanon border, Hizbollah kidnapped three IDF soldiers, Omar Souad, Benny Avraham and Adi Avitan. Shortly afterwards, I met the family of Souad, an Israeli Arab who had volunteered for IDF service. I also met Avraham's father. Both families were suffering the extraordinary pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Unlike with Shalit, it quickly became clear that these young men were dead and so the issue became one of returning their bodies to their families. It took until 2004, and the release of 400 prisoners in exchange, for this to happen.
This brings me to a young man by the name of Madji Halabi. Halabi went missing in May 2005 while returning to his base near Haifa. Being a Druze, Halabi was conscripted into the IDF. Halabi came from the village of Daliyat al-Karmel and his uncle had served as a colonel in the IDF.
Halabi was declared "Missing In Action" in June 2005. Little has been heard of him since. Unlike Shalit, who was known to be alive, or in the case of the three soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah, there was not much media coverage of his disappearance, little groundswell of support for this young man, and no great international movement to lobby for his release or for information as to his fate.
Why is it that some soldiers who are captured receive more attention than others do? International Jewish organisations ran campaigns for Ron Arad that lasted for years and made him a household name. Shalit became a cause célèbre for many Jews around the world, not least in Britain, and quite rightly so. But when a non-Jewish soldier goes missing there seems to be much less concern. Does someone who is acting in the defence of Israel and risking their life for the state not deserve the same concern and effort?
His father clings to the hope his son is still alive
But not everyone has forgotten him. His father, Nazmi, clings to the hope that his son is still alive and a reward of $100,000 has been offered for information. The Zionist Federation recently ran a campaign to raise awareness of Halabi's plight and show our solidarity with his family. Having gathered nearly 200 messages from individuals in the UK and letters of support from the Chief Rabbi and Ambassador Daniel Taub, last week, we sent a book of support to the Halabi family. As we did, news came that two convicted felons were trying to negotiate their release from prison in return for information as to the whereabouts of Halabi's body.
Israel, once again, as a government and a nation, faces a dilemma. Is the return of the remains of this man worth the price of freeing two criminals? Is it worth the release of hundreds? The IDF does not leave its own behind. Jew, Christian or Muslim - anyone who wears the uniform of an Israeli soldier warrants the same treatment and care as the next. So the answer is simple. Yes.
The criminals may not have the moral decency to provide the necessary information without trying to extort some value or asset for themselves, but Israel does. It may pay a high price for the return of its sons, but Israel does not forget the sacrifice that is made every day in the service of the country, including, sometimes, the ultimate sacrifice.
Stefan Kerner is the director of public affairs for the Zionist Federation